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Detroit Restaurants: Soul Food for a Hungry City

In Detroit, a city where bad news has long outweighed good, a group of young urban pioneers is bringing the community together around excellent barbecue and fabulous coffee and cocktails.

Even without floors or glass in the windows, there is something quietly captivating about Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. Opened in 1913, it is a grand, imposing structure, with heroic Corinthian columns created by the architects behind New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. But like so many buildings in Detroit, it has been abandoned. When Amtrak moved out, Michigan Central closed in 1988. It has sat empty, slowly decaying, ever since.

Detroit is a place where bad news has long outweighed good. The city took a big hit when the Big Three auto companies moved their manufacturing plants out to the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s, it was devastated by the riots of 1967 and it was hit again by the mortgage crisis and recession of 2008. It seems naive to think that anything as simple as good food could help reverse decades of decline.

Detroit Restaurants: Corktown
Excellent Detroit restaurants like Slows’s have turned one stretch of Michigan Avenue into a Motor City food hub.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

But just across Roosevelt Park from Michigan Central Station, on a single block of Michigan Avenue, that’s exactly what’s happening. Families from all over the state wait for a table at the excellent Slows Bar BQ; musicians hang out over meticulously made pour-over coffees at Astro Coffee; locals and suburbanites come for craft cocktails at The Sugar House. A good food-and-drink scene isn’t the only thing this community needs, but it’s one of them. “There is so much work to do here in Detroit,” says Phil Cooley, Slows’s co-owner. “But I thought, I’m gonna bite off a chunk of it.”

Cooley, 34, is one of a growing number of people who have come to Detroit in recent years, attracted by the potential they see in the vacant lots, abandoned buildings and bare-bones cost of living. After working as a model in Chicago and Europe, Cooley moved to Detroit in 2002, bought a loft in the Corktown neighborhood and made a living as a janitor and barback around town. The rundown building next door to his apartment was deserted, so he bought it for $40,000 with the idea of turning it into a restaurant. He and his brother Ryan, along with executive chef and co-owner Brian Perrone and sous-chef Michael Metevia, renovated the space for $300,000, using mostly reclaimed wood from the original building. “We built the kitchen first and then hung up a dust cloth, so Brian would test recipes while we were finishing the dining room,” says Cooley. “He’d bring out food for us to taste as we worked.”

Detroit Restaurants: Recipes from Slows Bar BQ
Highlights from the Detroit restaurant, Slows Bar BQ: Baby back ribs, Caesar salad, mac and cheese, lemon-brined chicken and Gouda-bacon burgers.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

Figuring out what type of food to serve was easy. “When we opened seven years ago, it was not the time to have a farm-to-table restaurant in Detroit, so we settled on barbecue,” Perrone says. The kitchen relies heavily on its massive smokers for everything from baby back ribs rubbed with paprika and ancho chiles to lemony chicken. Even though Perrone says “just about everything tastes good out of a smoker,” he’s adamant about using high-quality ingredients, ordering most of Slows’s meat from places like Niman Ranch. He has also gained a following for his patty melt-inspired Slows’ Special Purpose Burger, topped with smoked Gouda and bacon, and gooey, béchamel-based mac and cheese.

Today, the restaurant is busy from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, and Slows’s success has allowed Cooley to spend most of his time focusing on philanthropy—he spends over 40 hours volunteering every week. His latest project, called Ponyride, is a 30,000-square-foot warehouse space he rents out to socially conscious entrepreneurs, artists and nonprofits for 10 cents per square foot. There’s already a wait list to get in.

Detroit Restaurants: Daisuke Hughes and Phil Cooley
Daisuke Hughes of Detroit’s Astro Coffee shop (left) and Phil Cooley of Detroit restaurant Slows Bar BQ.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

Cooley has also succeeded in turning Slows’s stretch of Michigan Avenue into a Motor City food hub. He and his father and brother, who collaborate on real-estate projects together, began focusing on the block’s abandoned buildings. First in line to lease space was the husband-wife team Daisuke Hughes and Jessica Hicks, who opened Astro Coffee last July. Hughes sources beans from top roasters (San Francisco’s Sightglass, Detroit’s own Anthology) and Hicks makes the baked goods. These include oat-and-coconut Anzac biscuits, inspired by her Australian roots, and a changing selection of yogurt- and nut-based cakes, like her tender lemon, rosemary and almond cake made with skin-on ground almonds for texture and drizzled with smooth crème frâiche icing.

A new spot on the block is The Sugar House, a pre-Prohibition-style cocktail bar run by Michigan native Dave Kwiatkowski. He taught himself how to make classic cocktails using homemade bitters and syrups and refurbished the beautiful wooden bar himself. Open since last fall, The Sugar House draws a mix of locals and curious suburbanites, says Kwiatkowski, who mixes drinks like his Campari-and-gin-based take on an old-fashioned while wearing a traditional bartender’s vest and arm garters made by his mother. “Our customers don’t want to go to the chain restaurants in the suburbs,” he says. “They crave culture and have a taste for places like this.”

Detroit Restaurants: Michigan Avenue
Phil Cooley plans to launch a new Detroit restaurant in an old pawn shop.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

Opening a small business anywhere is tough, and opening one in Detroit is even tougher. But the support of the tight-knit Corktown crew encourages it. Ryan Cooley’s wife, Meghan McEwen, opened Honor & Folly, a stylish little inn, last December, and it’s booked every weekend by tourists from as far away as Hong Kong. Phil Cooley aims to launch a new local, seasonal restaurant in an old pawn shop on the block this year. “Detroiters are way stronger than most people,” he says. “We work harder and are more resourceful. We’re forced to work together, because there’s no other choice.”

Detroit Restaurants: Tour the Block

The Sugar House

Pre-Prohibition-style cocktails mixed with house-made bitters and syrups. sugarhousedetroit.com.

Detroit Restaurants: Slows Bar BQ

Slows Bar BQ

Fantastic smoked meat, excellent burgers and great local craft beers. slowsbarbq.com.

Photo © Marcus Nilsson.
Detroit Restaurants: Honor & Folly

Honor & Folly

A tiny inn decorated with Detroit-made goods. honorandfolly.com

Photo © Marcus Nilsson.
Detroit Restaurants: Astro Coffee

Astro Coffee

A low-key café with great coffee and pastries and a local pop-up market. astrodetroit.com.

© Marcus Nilsson

Motor City Picks

Honor & Folly innkeeper Meghan McEwen, who also writes the design blog designtripper.com, reveals her haunts.

Detroit Restaurants: Honor & Folly innkeeper Meghan McEwen
Honor & Folly innkeeper Meghan McEwen.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

Eastern Market

On Saturdays, this beautifully restored public market fills with produce stands. Open during the week: bakeries, nut shops and restaurants like Supino Pizzeria and Russell Street Deli. detroiteasternmarket.com.

Leopold’s Books

The independent bookstore has a well-edited selection of literary fiction, graphic novels, comics and magazines. leopoldsbooks.com.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)

Housed in a former car dealership, it has hosted exhibits by Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter. mocadetroit.org.

Nest

This general store from brother and sister Andy and Emily Linn sells things like local mustard and canning jars. nestdetroit.com.

71 Pop

Every month, there’s a new set of designers, artists and jewelry makers at Margarita Barry’s pop-up shop. 71pop.com.

Published June 2012
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